How I Became a Real Californian
Gotta love October in the Bay Area!
It is warm and clear (except when there are fires). Basically, it is summer all over again. Plus, there are Halloween decorations everywhere! It is also the time of year that I became a real Californian.
(All these photos are October images from the Bay Area that I have taken over the years. Yes, these are my apples from my tree!)
It was my third October in the Bay Area and I had my first real dance/movement therapy job at a psychiatric hospital about 30 miles from our house. The weather was awesome, and I was living my twenty-something dream. People everywhere were hyper-focused on baseball because the Giants and A’s were together in the World Series. That was considered very exciting stuff around here. To help with my commute, we bought a brand new, red Toyota Tercel, manual transmission, without a radio, for $5000. I know it is hard to believe, but this was a time before computers or cell phones, and the price of gas was about $1.70 a gallon.
I would make the daily drive home from Vallejo to Oakland in hideous traffic. Sometimes, it took so long that I would space out to the point of not realizing how far I had driven. This was not a good thing. I had only lived in California for three years, which made me a novice on the freeways. That meant I didn’t know the tricks or shortcuts.
I had noticed that some people figured out how to beat the traffic through Berkeley by driving parallel to the I 80 Freeway, by the water, on Frontage Road. They were able to breeze through that congested corridor a lot more quickly than I did. How did they get there? I needed to figure that out. One day, after leaving work and heading to San Francisco for my dance class, I decided to brave it out and give Frontage Road a try. Unsure of exactly which exit to take, or how to make it work, I went with my best guess. There is a first time for everything, right?
As I turned off the freeway, and circled onto the exit ramp, my car started to shake. What could be wrong with our brand new car? I stopped the car, and it kept shaking. The girls in the white Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible in front of me, waved their arms and shouted a big “Woo Hoo!” The sewer grate on the ground next to my car projectile vomited water. Straight up!
“I guess this is an earthquake,” I said to myself. It seemed to last a lot longer than others I had felt. But in reality, I had only been in one big earthquake, in Mexico City, years before. I had experienced a tremor or two since living in California. So, what did I know? Maybe they are usually this long and strong? It seemed incredibly intense, but I had nothing to compare it to. The Cabriolet kept driving, so I did too. I turned onto Frontage Road as planned, and felt oddly alone without a radio to tell me what was happening. Cars were still driving. Everything seemed normal…ish. I noticed cracks, more like giant fissures, in the road and water was gushing up through them. Is that the Bay squirting up onto the road? Does this happen after every earthquake? That is a lot of damage to repair every time this happens, I thought. As I got closer to the Bay Bridge, I started to sense that things were a little more extreme. Was it just me, or had everyone noticed there was something really wrong? I figured the toll booth attendant would tell me if it wasn’t safe to get on the bridge. I didn’t want to miss dance class! So, I plodded along and veered right toward the bridge.
Suddenly, to my right, was a man standing in front of his car, by the side of the freeway, with his hands on his head in disbelief. His car was flat on the ground, with its tires lying like donuts on a plate. His axel seemed to have split in half and his car was literally lying flat on the road. Did I mention the belly of his car was lying on the concrete?
It was at this point that I realized the fissures, the water, and the car, were all indications that I should not get on the bridge. I saw a huge road sign that I don’t think I had ever noticed before. “Last Exit in Oakland.” So, I took it. Maybe I should just get home and not go to dance class tonight, I thought. As I exited to a part of Oakland I had never been to before, I figured I could just find my way toward our Lake Merritt neighborhood without too much trouble.
I descended from the ramp and saw it right in front of me. An entire overpass collapsed barely a block away, straight ahead. The upper deck had completely fallen on top of the lower deck. Huge plumes of dust, smoke, and shattered concrete covered the air. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t really understand what had happened. Two men ran out of a building on my right and motioned for me to stop my car so they could run in front of it. They were carrying a ladder. They placed the ladder up against the overpass and started to climb. They were going to try to rescue people.
My choices at that point were slim. I had no idea where I was. I didn’t think I should drive under the collapsed freeway, so I turned right. For a second I thought it wasn’t as bad as it actually was. Very quickly, however, everything turned sepia tone, muffled, and slow motion as it started to sink in. It is 5:00 rush hour. There is a big game in the city. There must have been thousands of people on that freeway, and they must all be dead. Right in front of me. As I drove along-side the structure, it remained collapsed. Crushed. It kept going on and on. The dust kept filling the air. No one was on the street where I was driving. No one to ask for directions. No one to talk to. No radio to tell me what just happened. All I knew was that my house was somewhere to my left and I would have to drive under the overpass to get there. There was not going to be a safe left turn. That overpass was long. I chose a street and turned the wheel. I held my breath and clinched my whole body as I drove under, as fast as I could.
When I came out from under the destruction, I meandered and zig zagged in a direction I thought was toward my house. The streets were unfamiliar. No street lights were working and there were very few cars or people anywhere to be seen. That is, until I came to downtown Oakland. Mayhem. People running across the streets. Broken windows everywhere. My anxiety was increasing. I have to get home. Daniel is safe because I think he is in San Jose. I recognize these streets. I know where I am now. I can do this.
When I pulled into our driveway and noticed Daniel’s car, I was enormously relieved. As soon as I saw him, I broke down into hysterics. A tearful, can’t catch my breath, kind of hysterics, as I tried to explain what I had just witnessed. We were Ok, but so many weren’t. It took me a long time to calm down.
Daniel had been in the living room when it hit. He ran to the door jam and was literally knocked off his feet by the next jolt. We spent the night on the living room floor because our bedroom was covered in glass from a broken mirror. It got dark too quickly to clean everything up. We had a transistor radio and eventually the phone worked, so I could call my mother. She was in Massachusetts, terrified that I was on the Bay Bridge headed to dance class. She knew my Tuesday night routine and had seen the collapsed bridge on the news. Talking to her was how we found out that the bridge had collapsed.
The aftershocks continued throughout the night. Big and frequent waves. There was the constant roar of helicopters and sirens. The days that followed were really bizarre. No power, no gas, no work. Reports of looting and fires all around the Bay. The details of the deaths, confusion, and tragedy was consuming for everyone. When I did return to work and shared my story, a coworker’s eyes got really big and she suggested I speak to a counselor.
That day was October 17, 1989.
30 years ago today. Day of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. 63 people lost their lives that day. 42 of them were on the Cypress Structure of the Nimitz Freeway that I drove along side, and under, just a few minutes after 5:04 PM. Hundreds more are forever injured, traumatized, and changed from that event.
I try to honor those people with the way my life changed that day. I have always said that was the day that made me feel like I belong in California. Prior to that, I often thought we would someday move back to the East Coast. I am a New Englander, and you can take the girl out of Worcester, but… You get it. Yet, the earthquake changed all of that for me. I had gone through something. Something really big with the community of California and now it was part of me. And I was part of it. We all experienced the same shakes, the same stress a natural disaster causes, and we all mourned the losses together. While I did not experience anything nearly as devastating as those who lost loved ones or suffered so deeply, I had a hint of what it means to be proud of the community where you live, and proud of how you survive difficult times together. There was something comforting about that realization. So, today I sip my decaf and marvel at my good fortune. I make a toast to both the lives lost and to those forever changed by that day, and feel quietly grateful for how it changed me.